Final Days and Final Thoughts in Alaska- Girdwood

After spending the bulk of our vacation in Alaska in Anchorage, Denali National Park, and Seward, we decided to spend two days hiking around Girdwood, which is just under an hour from Anchorage. We stayed at the beautiful Alyeska Resort and were able to snag the Summer Tram Package deal where you get free tram tickets when you stay the night. Alyeska Resort is a 300-room year-round hotel with skiing in the winter and hiking and mountain biking the rest of the year. My husband took advantage of the fitness center and sauna and said the fitness center was the nicest one he’d ever been to at a hotel.

I’ll be honest, though. As nice as the hotel is (and it’s very nice), a big reason we stayed here was for the tram, although you certainly don’t have to stay here to take the tram. After taking the tram up to the top, we hiked Mighty Mite and Mountain Top Trail. A pdf of the hiking and biking trails from the Alyeska Resort can be found here. You can also hike up the top without taking the tram but we thought the tram would be a fun experience and since the tickets were included in our hotel stay, it would have been silly to have not used them. From the top, we saw seven glaciers, high-alpine tundra, the Chugach Mountains, and Turnagain Arm. There is a lookout area, gift shop, Bore Tide Deli and Bar, and the fancy Seven Glaciers restaurant.

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Hotel Alyeska and a tram

After hiking and admiring the gorgeous views from the top, we checked out some of the shops in town. Girdwood is tiny and there aren’t a ton of shops or restaurants but you can find a handful. For restaurants, we liked Girdwood Brewing Company (there was a food truck when we were there with awesome Mexican food), Sitzmark, Alpine Diner & Bakery, and The Bake Shop. There’s also a couple of small art galleries, Girdwood Center for Visual Arts and Slack Tide Gallery.

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View from the top above Hotel Alyeska

Besides taking the tram to the top from the Hotel Alyeska and hiking up there, we really wanted to  hike Lower Winner Creek Trail. The trail begins behind the Hotel Alyeska. The first 3/4 mile is a wide, well-developed boardwalk. The next 1.5 miles are easy hiking along a firm dirt trail  through the Chugach National Forest. When you reach Winner Creek Gorge, you’re in for a special treat, the hand tram. The hand tram is just like it sounds, powered by hand, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have people waiting on both sides of the gorge who will happily pull the ropes to get you across the gorge (otherwise you will have to pull yourself across). I have a fear of heights but loved going across the hand tram and highly recommend it.

Since we were pressed for time and had to fly out of Anchorage that evening, we only had time to turn around after taking the hand tram across the gorge (so we went across the gorge then immediately got in line to go back across the gorge in the tram). From the hotel to the hand tram and back is a 2 to 2.5 hour round-trip adventure. If you have time and energy to continue hiking, it’s one mile to Crow Creek Road. Crow Creek Mine is a few hundred miles up the road from there. If you want a quicker route, you can start at the Winner Creek Gorge Trailhead at Milepoint 2.9 of Crow Creek Road, hike for one mile to the hand tram, another 0.2 mile to the Gorge, then hike back to your car.

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The hand tram over Winner Creek Gorge

You can also extend your hike by turning right at the gorge and taking Upper Winner Creek Trail. There are multiple water crossings and the trail gets more primitive the further up you go. If you want you can continue over the pass down to the Twentymile River on the other side and packraft out to the Seward Highway. From the Hotel Alyeska to Twentymile River to the Seward Highway is a full day excursion and only recommended for experienced hikers in the Alaska backcountry.

Of course you can always just make a day-trip from Anchorage to Girdwood. Since I ran a half marathon in Anchorage, Skinny Raven Half Marathon, and we were going to drive straight after the race to Denali National Park, which is north of Anchorage, I didn’t want to hike that much before the race to save my legs. Our big loop of Anchorage to Denali to Seward to Girdwood before flying out of Anchorage seemed like the perfect way to do it and I’m glad we planned it that way.

Now I’m already planning another trip to Alaska. We’re thinking it would be cool to go a bit further north, say Fairbanks to see the northern lights during the winter. That won’t be for a few more years probably, but I have a feeling we will definitely be returning there.

Have any of you been to Alaska? What was your favorite part? If you haven’t been, what would you most like to see or do? My favorite part was going to Denali National Park but I loved so many other things as well. The boat tour in Kenai Fjords National Park was incredible and just being able to hike as much as we did and get to see as many amazing views as we did of glaciers and mountains was awesome. Do any of you plan your next vacation to a place before you even leave?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

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Seavey’s Sled-Dogs and Seasick in Seward, Alaska

The drive from Denali National Park (you can read about Denali National Park here) was a long one, at about 6 1/2 hours, but fortunately it was a beautiful drive. Since we drove from Anchorage after spending a few days there, the drive to Seward was at least partially familiar to us. We had driven along part of Turnagain Arm from Anchorage so we got to enjoy the views of that section again, which was one of the most scenic parts of the drive. The drive along the Seward Highway is definitely one of the best road trips you can take.

The part of Alaska where Seward lies is called the Kenai Peninsula. There are close to 20 glaciers in the Kenai Peninsula, so if you don’t see a glacier here, you’re not trying very hard. We decided to break up the long drive to Seward by stopping at Byron Glacier. Driving south from Anchorage on the Seward Highway, go to the end of the 5-mile Portage Spur Road. Byron Glacier trailhead is near Portage Lake. It’s a one-mile scenic walk to the glacier face along Byron Creek. We attempted to cross the creek but found it impossible without getting our shoes completely soaked and I was concerned about slipping and falling in with my camera, so we decided to just cross the rocks facing the glacier to get as close as we could that way.

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Byron Glacier area

We also hiked to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park (which has no entry fee). It’s a short 15-20 minute easy hike and you get to hike through a forest and along a gravel river bar. There are markers along the trail to show the glacier’s recession over the past 120 years. It really puts things into perspective when you hear about glaciers getting smaller by being able to see just how far Exit Glacier has receded over the years.

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Exit Glacier is much smaller now than it used to be but is still impressive

On our second day in Seward, we took a Kenai Fjords National Park tour with Kenai Fjords Tours, a 6 hour boat tour. We were forewarned that the water could be rough so my daughter, husband, and I all took motion sickness prevention medicine. Unfortunately my husband and daughter were sick pretty much the entire six hours. My poor daughter threw up for about 5 1/2 hours straight despite having medicine, three kinds of ginger candies/chews, and ginger ale. My husband had two different kinds of medicine and was still sick although not as bad as our daughter. I was the only one of us three who actually enjoyed the boat tour, which is sad because it was a truly awesome experience for me.

On the boat tour, we got to see sea otters, humpback whales, sea lions, puffins, common murres, bald eagles, and some glaciers, with Holgate Glacier being the best. Our captain was great and she gave interesting commentary along the way and pointed out all of the places and animals of interest. When we saw three whales that were interacting with each other very close to our boat, the captain took some time to let us hang out and watch the whales until they stopped surfacing on the water. We saw other whales along the way as well.

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Photo op from the boat tour with a piece of the glacier

For our third day in Seward, we went to what became my daughter’s favorite part of our time in Alaska, Seavey’s Ididaride. Mitch Seavey is a three-time Iditarod champion, with the record for the fastest time in 2017. If you’re not familiar with the Iditarod, it’s a sled-dog competition that goes from Anchorage to Nome. The race began as a way to get the locals more interested in dog sleds when interest began to decline due to increased use of snowmobiles. It’s so intense that mushers must have qualifying races just to enter the Iditarod. There’s big money for the winners, though, with recent previous champions winning anywhere from around $50,000 to $75,000. Why the variance? To give an example, total prize money in 2018 was $500,000 and was divided up among all of the 52 finishers. In 2017, the person in 21st place received $11,614 but in 2018, the 21st finisher  received $1,049, with more of the total prize money going to the first finisher.

More importantly, these dogs, Alaskan Huskies, which are a mixed breed usually combining the Siberian Husky with other working dog breeds like the Alaskan Malamute or Greyhound, are made for running. They clearly love to pull the sleds and get excited when they know they’re going to get to go for a run. There were 7 of us on our cart, which they use during the warmer months to keep the dogs in shape, and the dogs easily and happily pulled us through the woods. I really enjoyed hearing our musher’s stories along the way. He was as enthusiastic as the dogs were about dog sledding, and obviously loved what he did for a living. Before we got to ride the cart, though, we got to hold puppies! My daughter, who loves Huskies and wants one when she’s an adult, said this was her favorite part of our entire time in Alaska. The puppies were three weeks old and were absolutely adorable.

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Potential future Iditarod participant

Have you all heard of the Iditarod before? I had heard of it before but didn’t really know many of the specifics before going to Seavey’s Ididaride. It’s an interesting race with some hard-core mushers. Our musher told us how “great” it is to be out there on the Iditarod trail with your dogs and it’s 40 or 50 below zero. I can’t even imagine.

Happy travels!

Donna

Carnival in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands

Spending time in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands during Carnival was on my bucket list last year and I got to experience it this year! I had been to Aruba during Carnival several years ago  and while it was a lot of fun, it was nothing compared to Carnival in Las Palmas. The people of Las Palmas really know how to party! I’ve heard the neighboring island of Tenerife also puts on an awesome Carnival. Maybe I’ll get to experience that next time!

Carnival 2018 in Las Palmas was from the 28th of January to the 18th of February and included everything from a drag queen gala, children’s parades, canine carnival, and body makeup contest, to name a few events. This festival has been going on from the 15th century, with a major revival of the street festival in 1976 so there is a ton of history in this event. It seemed like everywhere around us, people were dressed up in costume, dancing, and drinking, so it seems to be a hugely popular event in the Canary Islands.

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Carnival in Las Palmas is like Halloween in the United States on steroids. Not only were there groups of people walking the entire distance of the parade route or dancing in party trucks dressed in costume but many spectators were also dressed in costumes. Some of the costumes were really creative too, like the pair we saw dressed up as the first apes in space (I wish I had a good photo of them but I don’t). The main parade lasted for hours but we chose to just watch a portion of it before we found a spot to grab dinner (which was full of other people in costume as well as the workers being dressed up).

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Leaving Carnival was another story entirely and one we had not planned appropriately for. Since so many roads were closed off for the parade, we were unable to get onto the road we needed to get back to our Airbnb apartment about 30 minutes away. There were no side roads we could take because of the nature of the island and layout of the roads. Ultimately we had to drive very far away from Las Palmas to get back on the only road to our apartment.

Lesson learned:  either stay in Las Palmas during a major Carnival event like this parade and walk to your accomodations or plan ahead of time how you’ll get around all of the barricades. If you plan to stay in Las Palmas during Carnival, you’ll want to make reservations well in advance as most of the nicer places will be booked, which is why we were staying 30 minutes from Las Palmas.

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Have any of you ever experienced Carnival around the world? What was it like?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

I Almost Missed a Bucket List Item in Malta- Gozo Salt Pans

Before going to Malta, one of the things I knew I absolutely positively wanted to do was go to the salt pans in Gozo. It was on my bucket list because the photos looked so beautiful and I had never to been anywhere like it. We only had two nights in Gozo, and the first day included flying into Malta, taking the ferry to Gozo, checking into our apartment, and getting settled, which didn’t leave a whole lot of time.

On our second day in Gozo, we went to three historical sites, The Old Prison, Ggantija Temples, and the Ta’ Kola Windmill. The prison and windmill were my favorites of the three places. I especially liked learning the historical significance behind bread-making in Malta, which was powered by the windmill. The prisons were pretty extensive and included areas for men and women which you could see into, along with background information for the prison.

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We were ready go on a walk along the beach by our apartment and call it a day as far as things to do when I suddenly remembered the salt pans. Luckily they were within walking distance of our apartment and even more importantly it was still daylight.

Like so much of Malta, the salt pans were even better than I thought they would be. They reminded me a bit of Sunset Cliffs in San Diego, but were even better. When I first told my husband I wanted to see the salt pans in Gozo I could tell he was thinking, really? How interesting can salt pans be? But when we got there and he saw them, he understood and he was as much in awe as I was.

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These salt pans are a big reason why I wanted to go to Malta in the first place
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Trust me when I say it’s even more beautiful here than a camera can capture

So when you hear people like me go on about the salt pans in Gozo, just take our advice and go there to see them yourself if you’re ever in Malta. They’re one thing in life that’s completely free to see but is absolutely priceless to enjoy.

Has anyone else been to Malta? If so did you get a chance to go to Gozo?

Happy travels!

Donna

My Revised Bucket List- More In-Depth this Time

The first bucket list I posted really just skimmed the surface. Basically I wrote about my burning desire to go to Malta, the Canary Islands, and the Republic of Georgia with several other honorable mentions. For the full post, you can go here. Since then, I’ve come up with a more extensive bucket list with specific experiences listed instead of just listing places. I did want to keep it reasonable, though, since I fully plan on actually doing these things eventually!

These are in no particular order, either (that would be nearly-impossible for me to rank them).

Hike in the Caucasus Mountains in the Republic of Georgia

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Republic of Georgia. Image credit YourAmazingPlaces.com

Enjoy the parades and music at the Las Palmas de Gran Canaria carnival

Visit the Xwejni Salt Pans in Gozo (Malta)

Climb Mount Fuji

Explore Croatia’s national parks and UNESCO World Heritage Sites

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Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia, image credit TripAdvisor

Tour the Postojna Cave system and Škocjan Caves in Slovenia

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Škocjan Cave in Slovenia; Image credit: samo_wi/Flickr

Visit the South Island in New Zealand and see if I like it better than the North Island

Road trip around the Isle of Skye

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Isle of Skye, photo credit unusual places.org

Hike up the trail to Machu Picchu peak

Trek through levadas and look for the Madeiran long-toed pigeon

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Madeira levada

Admire the Magellanic penguins in Chilean Patagonia

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Magellanic penguins, image credit aquariumofpacific.org

Watch a sunset at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur, California

Sample Uruguayan wine at a bodega

Visit all of the Provencal markets I possibly can in France

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Take Harry Potter tours in England

Climb up Lovcen National Park and Njegos Mausoleum in Montenegro

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Montenegro, image credit getbybus.com

Enjoy a Guinness in the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland

Play with rescue puppies at Potcake Place in Providenciales, Turks & Caicos Islands

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Rescue puppies in Providenciales, image credit Top13.net

I think that about covers it for me- lots of hiking, mountains with stunning views, good food and drink, beautiful water, and puppies! If you know me, you know this list sums up what I love most in the world (besides running of course, which I can do almost anywhere).

Now to see about actually making some of these places a reality for me!

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

 

 

The Top of My Travel Bucket List

I feel like I’ve traveled a lot in the United States but not nearly as much throughout the rest of the world. Sometimes I envy people in Europe because they have so many other countries at their fingertips. I’ve only recently been to Chile, my first adventure in South America and I’ve never been to Asia, Africa, or Antarctica, which means I’ve been to four continents. This also means there are a whole lot of places I’d like to go to. I’m only going to give details here about the top three places on my bucket list, otherwise this post would be way too long!

One place I’m extremely curious about is the Canary Islands. It’s kind of funny because I’ve never been to Spain but I want to go to the Canary Islands, which are a Spanish archipelago off the coast of Africa. Some people might ask, “Why aren’t you going to Spain? Why the Canary Islands instead?” I guess my family and I just don’t travel like most Americans. We don’t go to Disney every summer or the same beach house every summer. We don’t always go to the usual hot spots (although we have been to many of the more popular places too including Disney); we like to veer off the beaten path a bit, however. I have no doubt I will eventually go to mainland Spain, but it’s just not a priority on my travel bucket list right now.

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Canary Islands- photo credit theculturetrip.com

So why the Canary Islands? The weather for starters. The Canary Islands have near-perfect weather year-round, perfect for spending time outdoors. Each of the islands are also diverse from one another, with subtropical greenery on one island, another has mountains and waterfalls, another has lava fields, and still another has plains and cacti. There are of course the beaches but I’m looking way beyond lying on the sand all day. I’m looking forward to hiking and exploring all day, then maybe relaxing by the water with a cocktail in the evening. Now that’s my idea of a perfect day.

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Photo credit thomson.co.uk

I’d also love to go to the country Georgia. I’ve heard other people rave about how beautiful it is, how friendly the people are, how delicious the food is, and how affordable it is. It’s no secret I love mountains, and the bigger the better. The highest mountain range in Europe is actually in Georgia (not the Alps). The Caucasus Mountains, which separate Georgia from Russia, look stunning.

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Georgia- photo by David Jafaridze
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Photo credit:  YourAmazingPlaces.com

Another place that most Americans probably aren’t dying to go to but I am is Malta. This is another place similar to the Canary Islands where the weather is (almost) perfect year-round. The lows in the winter are only around 55 F and the highs in the summer average around 90 F, so the summers are a bit hot, but nothing too terrible, this coming from someone who hates winter but loves summer. Malta is an archipelago off the coast of Sicily full of diverse history, great food, gorgeous beaches, and beautiful architecture. An advantage of going to Malta is the majority of people speak English, so other than a few key words and phrases, I won’t need to learn Maltese.

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Malta- photo credit davidsbeenhere.com
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Photo credit slh.com

There are so many other places in the world I’d love to go to and I have no doubt I will eventually go there. Some of those places include Uruguay, Montenegro, Croatia, South Island of New Zealand, Spain, Portugal, England, France, Ireland, Thailand, and Japan, for starters. I’m always discovering new places and/or hearing about places I’ve never been and my interest will be piqued.

What about you all? What’s at the top of your bucket list? Have any of you been to the Canary Islands, Malta, or Georgia and have tips or suggestions for me?